Going Underground

I see it was two years ago tomorrow that I posted a notice of Handel’s very long and trenchant review of Rod Dreher’s book, The Benedict Option.  Well, Dreher has written a new book, Handel has written a new review, and I have written this new notice.

Dreher’s new book is called Live Not by Lies and, like The Benedict Option, it aims to prepare Christians for persecution and life underground.  Handel’s new review (not so long but no less trenchant than the first) once again says, to quote Aragorn speaking to Frodo at the Prancing Pony:

“Are you frightened.”
“Not near frightened enough. I know what hunts you.”

It seems that a large part of Dreher’s new book is devoted to description of underground Christians who survived Communist persecution behind the Iron Curtain, most especially in eastern Europe.  While this is certainly a story worth telling, Handel demurs against Dreher’s telling of it on three counts.  The first count is that those who have survived hard totalitarianism have little to teach those who now face soft totalitarianism.  The second is that Dreher has a sentimental soft spot for the alleged aims of the Left.  The third is that he provides precious little in the way of practical advice to persons facing life underground.

* * * * *

You must read Handel to learn everything he has to say about soft totalitarianism, although some of it is relevant to Kristor’s recent post on the prophetic power of Lewis’s That Hideous Strength.  In my view, the heart of that prophesy is that NICE will appear nice.  Unless, of course, you cross it, in which case it will turn very nasty indeed.  

As I explained in a recent post, soft totalitarianism wears a “humanitarian mask.”  I took the phrase from the Louisiana writer Charles Gayarré, who used it in 1877 to discredit the moral pretensions of the triumphant northern states.  We find the same insight in the Southern writer Donald Davidson, who warned against,

“the subtlest and most dangerous foe of humanity—the tyranny that wears the mask of humanitarianism and benevolence”*

The tyranny of soft totalitarianism will appear to be nice.  NICE will appear nice, unless you cross it, and thereby reveal yourself as an enemy of all that is nice (and NICE).  In which case NICE will give you what you had coming.

Handle explains that when NICE persecutes you for not being nice, you should not expect the consolations of a martyr who suffers the wrath of hard totalitarianism.  Indeed, a solution to the martyr problem is one of the great evolutionary adaptions of soft totalitarianism.  A dissident becomes a martyr when his punishment entails what we nowadays call the “bad optics” of apparent brutality.  Tank columns, prison camps, helicopter rides, show trials.  These instruments of hard totalitarianism crush dissidents, but they also create martyrs, and by creating martyrs they sow the dragon’s teeth that sprout into more dissidents.  

But as Handel explains,

‘Soft’ is totally different.  People will still have choices, but if they choose ‘wrong’ in the eyes of the elites, then they will just be seen as weirdo losers and low-status pariahs, not martyrs.

Our own Bonald (whom Handle cites favorably) has often complained that the boundaries of forbidden speech are nowhere defined, but Handel explains that spurious freedom of speech is a tool of soft totalitarianism.  Under soft totalitarianism, freedom of speech is simply an invitation for mugs to publicly declare themselves “low status pariahs.”  Free speech is, in effect, the signup sheet for those who declare themselves deserving of “social consequences.”  

It is bad optics when a court of law sends a dissident author to the salt mines for writing that which is explicitly forbidden by law.  It is good optics for “society” to deplatform and unemploy a dissident author who writes that which hurts and excludes some vulnerable and protected class of weepies.

In other words, NICE is nice to everyone who is nice.  And everyone who denies that NICE is nice gets what they have coming.

* * * * * *

Handle also demurs against Dreher’s sentimental soft spot for the alleged aims of the Left, not excluding the Bolsheviks and anarchists who took possession of the Russian state.  Dreher is therefore at least partly taken in by the “humanitarian mask” of the Left.  Thus he is alarmed and disgusted by the tyrannical abuses of Bolshevism, but nevertheless believes that Bolshevism began as a humanitarian response to the even more tyrannical abuses of Czarism.

This is an example of the view, so common among conservatives, that Progressives have been right about everything, and conservatives have been wrong, until Progressives went too far just the week before last.  As I recently wrote

We should despise those “conservatives” who spinelessly admit that Progressives were essentially right about everything, from the regicide of Charles I, right down to whatever picayune thing got up their nose and made them “conservative” the week before last. 

* * * * *

The subtitle of Dreher’s book is “A Manual for Christian Dissidents,” but Handle tells us that this verges on false advertising because Live Not by Lies contains very little practical advice.  Indeed, he tells us that the book does not even embody the apparently practical advice of its title, since Dreher prudently omits to name the lies by which a Christian should not live.

I daresay that this is because the lies by which we should not live are pretty lies, nice lies, lies it is gauche, boorish and unsociable to point out.

But the bottom line for both Dreher and Handle is that Christians must prepare to live underground.  Handle different from Dreher in believing that it may be too late for us to learn how to burrow, and that the surveillance system of our soft totalitarian state requires an altogether new sort of burrowing.


*) Donald Davidson, The Attack on Leviathan: Regionalism and Nationalism in the United States (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1938), p. 12.


30 thoughts on “Going Underground

  1. I think “Going underground” presupposes a hard totalitarianism. Soft Totalitarianism utilizes social pressure, and going underground accomplishes what the soft totalitarians want, which is to not be bothered by you anymore.

    I think soft totalitarianism requires more of a “coming out” if you’ll pardon the phrase. As you say, an open declaration of being a social pariah. A kind of “I am spartacus” whereby Christians declare both their intent to remain unapologetically christian and their lack of caring in what the soft totalitarians think. Far too many Christians are allowed to be “Christian in name only” because they are not required to name themselves. Going underground promotes this hiddenness, and in my opinion puts us closer to the rot which we acknowledge has infected certain elements of the Church, and definitely christendom. Remaining firm and declaring ones allegiance, to me, is the contrary action to soft totalitarianism because it forces the Christian to find his reasons for believing and then to hold to them publicly. This doesn’t even have to be a romantic, dramatic sacrifice. Simply abstaining from meat on Friday is a radically foreign concept to most people.

    You point out that only in hard totalitarianism does this create martyrs, and in soft totalitarianism will only create pariahs. Deplatforming can and in some cases does have the “barbara streisand” effect of amplifying a message they want extinguished. Going underground pre-emptively steals us away from open witness. Persistent low-status pariahs in sufficient numbers dares hard totalitarianism, which is the inevitable end of soft totalitarianism. A deplatformed individual can still talk to people, and if their thoughts are still thoughtcrimes then there’s no reason not to deplatform them from reality.

    My point in all this is that Martyrs aren’t possible to an underground-people. Martyrdom has it’s place, you point out that it tends to multiply the number of dissidents. We shouldn’t prefer martyrdom, but we shouldn’t flee from it either. Survival will either require a new kind of burrowing, where Christians adapt themselves to being invisible in the modern age; or it will require a new kind of Faith, which is unapologetic and stares evil in the face.

    • Let’s say you were fired because you made coworkers uncomfortable with a frank affirmation of St. Paul’s view of sex roles. What kind of support would you expect from the Church? Legal counsel? A couch to sleep on? Thoughts and prayers?

      • Does the Church offer those things now? Of course there would be hardship–that’s kind of my point. We shouldn’t seek out that kind of hardship, of course, but neither should we fear it; it helps knit a community closer together to take care of their own. Far from isolating individuals, I think it would drive like-minded Christians and Catholics together in a stronger community than we have now. There’s an astonishing video on youtube of parishoners in France, some years ago, creating a battering ram to get inside a church whose doors had been boarded up. Targeting and isolating a community can strengthen that community’s resolve.

      • Churches need to be prepared to offer financial help to people who lose their jobs under certain circumstances. What else did God provide them with money for anyway? : )

  2. Aye, there’s the rub. How to “burrow” in this new manner? Concrete tools and tactics. Retreat to small, rural communities of Benedicters might have been a viable option for progressively alienated transgressors of NICE before the regimen of COVID measures became ubiquitous, of obscure duration and apparently selective enforcement. But the kind of face-to-face-in-meatspace interaction necessary to foster trust and civic cooperation is now immeasurably more difficult to engender and sustain. Some may have the heroic fortitude to embrace solitude like modern day Desert Fathers; but many of us coping with isolation through the thin gruel of internet-mediated social relations have learned an abject lesson on the necessity of community and the pain of its loss. The ostracism of soft totalinarianism may not threaten us with the spilt blood of martyrdom, but it’s as fearful a prospect as the cruelties of hard totalinarianism nonetheless.

    • Handle describes the way that martyrdom under the Soviets was made easier for the martyr because his suffering was admired by his community. If he was able to return to that community, it was as a hero. As you say, suffering in solitude is hard. Ostracism will break most men quicker than the lash.

  3. It is a strategic error to commit ourselves to any specific strategy. We need to protect ourselves; sometimes this requires fighting and other times it requires hiding. Sometimes becoming obvious and sometimes blending in. (Probably more of the latter.)

    The one imperative is protecting our people.

    I say this mainly because sometimes people become attached to one strategy or the other. We must be flexible.

  4. Pingback: Going Underground | Reaction Times

      • @JMSmith

        It is divine providence that the persecutions in the Roman Empire isn’t exterminationist in nature.

        And the Gospel is preserved in the European Context.

  5. I gave up on Dreher about a year ago after one-too-many virtue-signaling melt-downs over some Trump tweet. Also, Handel is more than right about his “sentimental soft spot” for the aims of the left. Dreher stated that he voted for the Democratic governor of Louisiana, which hardly makes sense under any circumstance, especially considering Louisiana’s two Republican Senators, who, like anyone, are merely mortal.

    Dreher’s “solutions” of going underground, or Benedict Option type communities are no solutions at all, unless you’re willing to consign the rest of your life to second-class citizen status.

    I’m more convinced than ever that the only solution to NICE is Separation. A big undertaking no doubt, but one that offers more promise than acknowledging that the Dark Side cannot be overcome.

    • Dreher’s old Crunchy Con blog was one of the first things I read on the internet. Like Dreher, I am a man of conservative opinions but SWPL tastes, and I thought he could teach me how to balance these things. I came to the conclusion that he is a man of conservative tastes and SWPL opinions, although I know this isn’t entirely fair. I don’t think NICE will let anyone secede, and will justify violence against secession with humanitarian arguments. They will claim to be protecting the human rights of the women and children the secessionists propose to take with them. This is the argument liberalism uses to capture anyone who runs away from the plantation (fundamentalist Mormons, for instance).

      • The phrase ‘Christian Diaspora’ has been floating in my head for a few months now. It sure would be a turn of the wheel if the Church became an ethnicity.

        I just wish I knew how to advertise to the kindred spirits I pass on the sidewalk, or meet in the store, or chat with at the gym – when, as noted here, so much of speech has turned into mere gesture; and moreover, that the meaning of my words has been appropriated by the Beast. I am trying to set a good example to follow, but I crave an explicit community and I just cannot seem to find or formulate it.

      • I think there are many who share your sense of isolation. The internet is great, so far as it goes, but it is no substitute for genuine community.

    • Dreher did an article sometime in the last two years where he described an altercation he had with a male peer at some point during his adolescence. It was basically a scuffle that young Rod wasn’t looking for and in the article he goes on about how adults in the room didn’t jump in to stop the bullying on his behalf. We’ve all had similar playground fights where you make the internal decision to either unleash the flashpoint and shove back or cower and look for a hero. Rod looked to the rails for a savior instead of making his stand. He’s not a fighter. Probably a decent man. Maybe even a good one but not someone I’d count on to lead me into battle.

      • Most writers are not fighters. They became bookworms and wordsmiths because they couldn’t compete in bare-knuckels arena. There is some truth to the taunt that most writing is revenge for a wedgie received in the third grade.

    • It will teach him that you’ve got to eat everything they set out if you want to eat at the Progressive table. Good manners aren’t enough. They don’t accept picky eaters.

  6. Thanks for linking Handel’s review. I agree that it is very good, probably more valuable than the book.

    Since I’ve been an adult, I’ve been attending churches that warned me that being a Catholic will often mean not going along with mainstream culture and being disliked for it. However, these same priests were usually very reluctant to say exactly what popular beliefs or practices we are meant to defy. When an example seemed to be demanded, they would mention general selfishness and consumerism, or the like. There’s something to be said for speaking generally. Probably when priests preach this, they’re thinking of people being tempted to participate in petty dishonesty, gossip, or drug abuse among a group of friends or coworkers, and in the past refusing to go along most often occurred in such contexts of small-group peer pressure. However, I think among the professional classes, such general entreaties do more harm than good. We’re all encouraged to think of ourselves as vaguely non-conformist, with the media-academic establishment telling us in exactly what way we are to non-conform so as to win the esteem of our peers and to rebuke low-status people whom we’ll probably never have to meet.

    From Dreher’s blog, it’s clear he knows what sort of attacks Christians are actually likely to face. (For example, he knows perfectly well that we’re not likely to suffer for our brave stand against “neoliberalism”.) I won’t accuse him of not mentioning specifics out of fear. I do wonder what sort of self-defense manual one can put together without discussing the enemy’s specific lines of attack.

  7. Live Not by Lies is a good book, with many words of warning and encouragement to stand from Soviet-era dissidents who see the dangers of our own time and place. I’m hoping pastors (among others) will read it and have bought copies for the pastors of a district in our area, one of them having decided that the book will be the topic of a pastors’ monthly meeting that he will be hosting.

    • I may read it. I was accosted on my evening walk a month or so ago, by a man who said he is some sort of a minister. He said he thought he recognized me, although I think it was probably a case of mistaken identity. Whether he though I was me or someone else, he knew I was a professor, and he was eager to talk about cultural Marxism. He had apparently been reading things on the internet, and was in a rather agitated state of mind. I’m not the guy to talk to if you want your mind to be put at ease on this question, so I agitated him a little more. The clergy need to adjust themselves and their flocks to the reality of post-Christian America. Not railing against it from the pulpit, but dispensing practical advice how to survive in it.

      • The clergy’s dilemma is that more than half of the congregation is already on the other side. The people in the pews is already too big a group to start with.

        Here’s a plan.

        Step 1: Decide what it would mean for a person to be “on our side”. This is presumably some combination of beliefs and gut identification. It does not require personal courage or morality. A coward or porn addict on your side is still on your side.

        Step 2: Try to get a group of people on your side in one room. This is where the real step 1 can begin. One now has some community, however tiny, in which being on your side is high status. From there, the group can start thinking about ways to protect or expand itself.

        Probably, at a regular-size Catholic parish, one could find half a dozen or more people fully on the Catholic side (however this is defined), but currently there is no parish activity in which any such Catholic can know that he’s surrounded by allies.

      • Humans find it very hard to fake enthusiasm for people and ideas they dislike. They may feel compelled to clap and smile, but a spark of self-respect requires that they do this in a tired or ironical way. So to find people who are on our side, you should look for the people who are the first to stop clapping for some Progressive piety. Chances are that they do not have much in the way of positive doctrine, only a vague dislike for platitudes they are given. When you get them in that room, you give them the positive doctrine that explains why they dislike those platitudes. Radicalism grows by recruiting people with the potential to be radicalized. Reaction must work in the same way, with what today’s slang calls “red-pilling.”

  8. Ironically, Mr. Dreher was one of the first to jump on the persecution bandwagon against a Christian minister in Louisiana who had the audacity to open his church doors in spite of the lockdowns. Rod is a card-carrying member of the republic of NICE. Rod–like a broken clock–is also occasionally right.

    At core, Rod lacks courage. Vox Day (despite his flaws) is very perceptive and wrote an insghtful piece about him as a “cuckservative” here: http://voxday.blogspot.com/2019/07/the-gamma-never-grows-up.html

    • Remember his initial response to the smirking white boys at the march for life? He recanted pretty quickly, but his gut reaction was that the boys were a disgrace the Christian community. A victim of misleading hot takes, but of course, but it does reveal an inordinate thirst for strange new respect.

      • Men of the right are far too eager to seek atonement by denunciation of other men of the right. They feel an entirely unreciprocated obligation to police their own ranks for the benefit of the Left. Quisling is the name for such rats.

  9. Pingback: Absolute Martyrdom – The Orthosphere


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